The closest thing to MJ since MJ not only saved Bears’ flimsy playoff hopes, but also is rewriting record book after only 30 career games
November 26, 2007
BY JAY MARIOTTI
Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
Devin Hester (L) of the Chicago Bears breaks away from Mike Bell #30 of the Denver Broncos 25 November 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If you wait him out long enough, after he has pulled on his True Religion jeans and Louis Vuitton knit cap and answered every possible how-does-it-feel question about being Superman, Devin Hester eventually exposes his secret. He's arrogant. As a God-fearing soul, of course, he is anything but conceited, but as an athlete who is blazing trails before our glazed eyes, he is driven by a raging demand to thrill the senses.
"Every time I'm out there, I feel I'm going to be the guy that makes the play. I just knew I had to be the one to change everything around," Hester said Sunday evening, as the locker room around him buzzed in relief and glee. "If a player doesn't think he's the one who should make the play, he shouldn't be on the field. If you don't have that mentality, why go out there?"
A startling Bears victory will fade in memory soon enough, placed in the COMEBACKS OVER DUMB OPPONENTS bin. But what we're never going to forget is this phantasm who continues to glide across football fields here and beyond. Wax if you must about Rex Grossman's uncommon poise, Bernard Berrian's rubberband-man catch to force the overtime period, a lucky illegal-contact call on 4th-and-ballgame and Robbie Gould's winning field goal in an outrageous 37-34 win over the Denver Broncos. Anyone with functioning senses knows this was The Hesterizer's masterpiece, the latest chapter in a fireworks display that has given Chicago its closest facsimile to Michael Jordan -- right down to the No. 23 -- and provided the NFL with a blur of dominance much more fun and way cleaner than the run of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
"I don't think the league has ever seen anything like this guy," said Denver safety John Lynch, who has been around long enough to know.
"He's the best I've ever seen," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who made the grave mistake of kicking to Hester and, in the process, proved that an East Leyden High School education isn't as impressive as we thought.
Without Hester's two latest kick returns for touchdowns, the Bears are out of the playoff race, Grossman is the town villain again and we're calling out Brian Urlacher as a little boy for kicking the football after Tony Scheffler's acrobatic catch gave Denver a 14-point lead with 10 minutes left. But with his thunderous romps, the Bears can cling to a farcical dream of reaching the postseason as an NFC wild-card team, a fantasy that will vanish once teams either stop kicking to Hester, like Detroit, or contain him effectively, like Oakland. The Broncos foolishly chose to kick to him with special-teams players that looked like invisible men. The decision came with a bold challenge from our old friend, trash-talking punter Todd Sauerbrun, who was a dope when he kicked for the Bears and apparently lost more brain cells in Mountain Time.
Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears celebrates his second kick return for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos on November 25, 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
"We're not going to play chicken-(poop) ball," he declared last week. "We're not going to kick away from (Hester). Hey, we respect the hell out of him and he's the best, but we have guys on our coverage teams that are paid to make big tackles."
In truth, there were cars on Lake Shore Drive closer to Hester than most Broncos on his 75-yard punt return and 88-yard kickoff return, with both scores pulling the Bears into ties in the third quarter. Only Sauerbrun got near him on the first one, diving as Hester leaped over him like an Olympic hurdler. He raced into the end zone, dropped the ball and kept running straight up the tunnel a good 20 yards. "I wanted to make sure I didn't fall," explained Hester, as if gravity isn't protecting him enough. On the second return, he followed Rashied Davis and scored untouched, cupping his ear and making swan motions as the adoring fans serenaded him. In retrospect, the Broncos would have better off playing chicken-(poop) ball than stupid ball.
At least Sauerbrun, saluted later on NBC as commentator Keith Olbermann's "Worst Person in the NFL," was respectful enough to join the masses in praising Hester. "Today was an extremely bad day. It killed us," he said. "Devin did an awesome job. He won the game. The Bears can thank him. It was our fault for letting him loose, and all props to Devin. He deserves a trip to the Pro Bowl."
The Pro Bowl? Try immortality. The simplest way to explain his mad streak through history -- not just football, but all of sport -- is that he has played 30 career games in the regular season and postseason and already has 12 returns for touchdowns. The NFL officially doesn't count his Super Bowl TD return nor his 108-yard return of a field goal against the Giants last season, but I do. Technically, he has 10, placing him fourth on the all-time list behind Brian Mitchell (13), Dante Hall (12) and Eric Metcalf (12). In one swoop Sunday, he passed his mentor and hero, Neon Deion Sanders, and the likes of Desmond Howard, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Dave Meggett, Bobby Mitchell and Rick Upchurch. In the biggest tribute, he also passed the Bears' previous record-holder, the great Gale Sayers.
These are legendary names. Yet in 15 1/2 months, Hester has all but obliterated the field. If every team knows he's coming and still can't bottle him up, is it fair to wonder if he could return 30 or 40 kicks for touchdowns? And if the Bears ever could figure out how to get him the ball more on offense -- oh, to see The Hesterizer with Tom Brady -- aren't we talking about a no-doubt Hall of Famer?
"I really try not to look at those things," he said. "At the end of my career, when I'm 34 or 35, maybe I'll look at all the records. But now is not the time."
Did it bother him when Sauerbrun issued his crazy challenge? Actually, it excited him. "I don't feel like it's a compliment when people say they're going to kick away from us," he said. "It's more like a threat. It's like they're saying they don't feel like we can score, that we're not good ... Teams play mind games. It's part of it."
In Hester's mind, he needed to score touchdowns to make amends for an early screwup. Strangely, he tried to bat down a bouncing ball like a basketball player and lost a fumble, which led to a Denver field goal. But in the end, he was just happy to win in a season when so many of his heroics have come in ugly defeats.
"All I want to do is win games," he said. "When you return kicks and lose, no one remembers what you do. Now they can remember everything."
Like nothing we've seen before, or ever will see again.